This historical fiction about a doctor’s attempt to expose a fake medium dramatizes the uneasy juncture of two highly controversial if burgeoning movements in 1890s England: spiritualism and Freudian psychology.
A respected doctor of the mentally ill, Ambrose Gennett is frustrated by his colleagues’ resistance to the new theories in psychology. Lily Embly, who has long earned a hand-to-mouth existence assisting her mother at séances, finds herself popular with a more lucrative clientele—Ambrose’s social set—when she’s taken under the wing of a charlatan friend of her now dying mother. Lily and Ambrose have a cute first meeting: He helps her when she’s knocked on the head at Victoria Station. The attraction is ambiguous. Despite his rigid disbelief in omens, Ambrose mistakenly takes a comment Lily makes as a warning about his mother. He also misreads in Lily a textbook case of neurosis he thinks he can cure by the new methods. His murky obsession with Lily turns hostile when he discovers her holding a séance in his mother’s house. Believing each is out to destroy the other, Ambrose and Lily fulfill their own prophesies. Jealous of his interest in Lily, Ambrose’s married mistress makes a public fuss that causes Lily’s creditors and Ambrose’s employers to assume a romance is taking place. When Ambrose crashes a weekend house party where Lily is to conduct a séance which will pay her enough to get out of debt, he not only destroys Lily’s career but his own reputation. Roughed up by her creditors, Lily disappears. Initially Ambrose is charged with her murder, then committed to an insane asylum where decades later he discovers that Lily has surfaced in New York. She now works for a psychiatrist. After all, the skills of instinct and analysis required are the same she used in her old profession.
Newcomer Dietz’s fevered, often cryptic style makes for a narrative fascinating and annoying in equal measures.